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18 December 2006
Is it curtains for the class system?

Richard Dryball: The Times

An experiment at the Barbican will look at how class-ridden the theatre still is, but Richard Dryball set about his own investigation

A really good night in the theatre can be powerful. As the curtain comes down it can make you ask fundamental questions about the world. Sometimes it can even make you look in the mirror and say: ?What the hell am I, where do I belong??

It?s unusual, however, to ask these big questions when you are booking the tickets. But that?s exactly what happened to me when I rang to buy a seat for Class Club, which opens at the Barbican tonight. This is the latest dinner cabaret/theatre show from the Duckie company. When you book, you have to specify what class of menu and entertainment you would like, then pay either £14.99, £25 or £40, according to which class you would like to be ? lower, middle or upper.

My basic instinct, like many of us, is to settle on ?middle? and be done with it. But that seems so bland. And, indeed, it turns out that Class Club?s whole shtick is geared to the idea that middle-class means bland and conservative. Those occupying the upper and lower tables, they tell me, will be offered solid traditional fare with good service, and be entertained with something specific, such as opera for the toffs and bawdy comedy for the underclass. The middle will, they say, be ignored or offered ?trendy world food? and a loose satire on contemporary dance.

Now, OK, on the one hand this is just a clever way of cooking up tabletheatre for the cognoscenti. But as I vacillated between the options, and their accompanying menus, this made me wonder: to what extent does going to the theatre cleave to such received notions of the class system? And, hold up, what is the class system anyway?

The advertising industry tells us that we are now a classless society, like America, where we are all either A, B or C, 1, 2 or 3. Even if they are right, it still redefines ?society? as ?middle-class society? and then subdivides us into lower, middle and upper anyway.

So I thought I?d test these assumptions with three trips to three seasonal shows in locations where, rightly or wrongly, expectations come with their own class filter. And this is the perfect time of year to have a look. Apparently, each Brit goes to the theatre about 1¼ times a year, mostly at Christmas. So I?ve opted to spend an across-the-board tenner and go to see whether seasonal shows really do still differ all that much according to the socioeconomic group that you might traditionally expect.

I start with the ?working class? option: never mind your Mark Ravenhills and your Ian McKellens, a ?traditional family panto? is still seen as being as lowbrow as you can go without having the cast writhe round a pole. In this case, I?ve opted for Dick Whittington in Southend. Southend and I have some previous: it was on my last visit here that I witnessed a panto nadir in the 1990s. I went to see Gary Bushell as an execrable Robin Hood in a theatre that looked like a bread factory.

On the train, post-pubescent boy gangs are flashing knives. As I alight at Southend, random violence hangs in the air. I approach the theatre and notice the cars parked outside ? the showboat end of the 4x4 genera. I go in with a heavy heart, but once inside, the place is buzzing, the staff are fun, and most importantly this Whittington is a belter. Not a Bushell in sight, just top pros giving us the full panto treatment. Superb singing and dancing with pace and energy. Sarah the Cook is a powerhouse, Cannon and Ball are fresh and funny and the story is clearly told. It passes the true test: little boys, old ladies and me, united in one-nation joy.

During the interval I fall in with Rod, a Southend electrician, and his family. They are having a good time too. I ask them if they?d ever been to the Royal Opera House. They say no. I ask them if they would consider going to the Duckie show. They look at me as if I am insane.

I head back to London. I?ve got an ?upper-class? experience tomorrow.

So to the ROH in Covent Garden, because the poshest man I?ve ever met told me at a drinks do on a yacht that it is the only place he will go for live entertainment. Never mind him, though, this is one of the most accessible venues around. There?s something to please everybody and every budget here. Students, children and the less well-off are welcomed during the Travelex season, but you can see world-class opera and ballet for £4 at any time. It?s a treat to come here and enjoy the public space. The Floral Hall is breathtaking and the outdoor terrace with a view over Covent Garden is magical. Rod and his family would surely like it here too.

It?s the only theatre I?ve ever seen giving away copies of the Financial Times.

The perceived image problem could be because it?s so intimidating on arrival. Tonight the ticket hall is packed with the City hedge-fund community. It?s the only theatre I?ve ever seen giving away copies of the Financial Times. My £11 seat is high in the amphitheatre, up with ?the paupers?, as Dame Edna would say, and I?m surrounded by foreign backpackers. Below us are the well-shod. Where are the ordinary Brits? What?s happened to the integration of Shakespeare?s Globe when the ?penny stinkards? would see the same thing as the wealthy?

Perhaps it?s because the Sleeping Beauty that we?re here to see tells the story in a ludicrously old-fashioned way, with stilted gestures and sets and costumes that haven?t changed much since 1946. The Duckie crowd would hate it ? far too little irony ? but they won?t come because it?s obvious from the brochure what you will get. It?s not for me either, but there?s no denying that it?s a show with a very sure sense of itself.

Finally, then, to Kent. If Surrey is the beating heart of middle England, then Tunbridge Wells is the administrative capital. It?s not ?super-rich? so much as ?super-civilised?. This is where the Today programme comes when it needs a nice vox pop on a ?middle-class disaster?, such as inheritance tax. So I?m coming to the usually reliable Trinity Arts Centre, to see an arty-looking Cinderella. In the café I see a bevy of women with their daughters, many of whom are wearing the blue dress from the classic Disney film.

Ten minutes into the show I feel uneasy. Is this Cinderella or the local sixth-form doing their theatre A level practical exam? The story is lost in earnestness. The young girls in the dresses who know the tale best are most baffled. It?s a bit like popping your toddler in front of CBeebies to find that Anthony Minghella has suddenly taken over writing and directing The Tweenies.

It's as if Anthony Minghella had suddenly taken over directing The Tweenies

The seats start flipping up, and I join the polite exodus. In the café I ask two women why they left with their four girls. They were disappointed because they were hoping for a Cinderella that their young children would recognise but wasn?t like a ?tacky commercial panto?. They were hoping for ?something in the middle?. At this point a rather snotty usher intervenes and, looking at me directly, says: ?It gets better in the second half and it is actually for young people.?

At which I feel the classic middle-class emotion: embarrassment. So much so that I daren?t ask for my £10.95 back.

Experiment completed, it?s time to reflect. The three venues are all doing good business, trying to appease their different markets. But while I thought they would conform roughly to their cartoonish class models, I was astonished to see the sheer extent of the audience segregation.

There is a huge gulf in content between the upper and lower-class shows, but Duckie has identified an important point: the top and bottom are more satisfying because they share a shameless clarity of intention. The middle way, where many of us belong, tries to appeal widely and ?correctly?. The result is muddled and tame.

I just need to do one more unit of research. I?m now ready to book for Class Club. But now I?ve got a tactic. I?ll pay the working-class money upfront, then see if I can blag a free upgrade just before it starts. That?s not too middle-class is it?

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